The island off the Louisiana Gulf Coast that members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe call home is virtually disappearing before their eyes. Rising sea level and coastal erosion have reduced Isle de Jean Charles from 32,000 acres to 320 acres.
"We used to live off the land," said Chief Albert White Buffalo Naquin. "Now we just live on the land."
The future looks bright, however, thanks to the rapidly growing resilience movement. The state of Louisiana has received a $48-million federal resilience grant to move the tribe to a new community that will be built inland in a sugar cane field.
Naquin said “300 or so, up to 400” members of the tribe will move to the new location. “We’ll be building a brand new little city,” he said.
The resilience and adaptability movement grew out of the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina smashed the city in 2005, killing more than 1,400 people, flooding 80 percent of the Crescent City and causing $108 billion in damages.
“Adaptability is about repairing cities and adapting to the future,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a major player in the resilience movement. “Resilience is the ability to bounce back from any shocks or stresses.”
Resilience starts with rebuilding after a cataclysmic event such as a hurricane or mitigating flooding caused by rising sea levels in coastal cities. It also encompasses building stronger cities by addressing equity issues such as income inequality, inadequate housing, lack of jobs, poor health or failing schools.
“What cities have to do to make themselves more resilient over time is to think about the social systems that are in place,” said Samuel Carter, managing director in charge of resilience at the Rockefeller Foundation. “What are the economic systems that need to be in place? What are the policies that need to be in place so when the systems do fail, when it floods again, people are kept safer.”
Resilience goes hand in hand with sustainability, a NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® priority. “REALTORS® thrive in a culture of sustainability that promotes viability, resiliency, adaptability and resource efficiency,” NAR said in a 2016 vision statement.
Jeb Brugmann, director of solutions, development and innovation at 100 Resilient Cities, said resilience is having a positive impact on the real estate market.
“In many respects the real estate industry is already saying, ‘this one is more resilient than that one,’ and values are already recording that,” he said. “A better neighborhood is the one where people know it’s going to be as good 10 years down the road as it is today.”
The Rockefeller Foundation first got involved in resilience in the United States when it took a lead role in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina. The foundation brought in outside experts to work with local interests to identify the city’s vulnerabilities and develop a plan to fix them. Flood control and other improvements designed to make New Orleans resilient to future shocks have cost more than $14.5 billion so far.
The New Orleans experience followed by Superstorm Sandy slamming New York and New Jersey in 2012 led the foundation to create 100 Resilient Cities, a global network of cities developing resilience to physical, social and economic challenges. Of the 100 cities, 23 are in the United States, including New Orleans, New York, Miami Beach and Norfolk, Va., all of which are building resilience to flooding issues related to climate change.
When the foundation selects a new member of 100 Resilient Cities the first requirement is to hire a chief resilience officer whose salary is paid by Rockefeller.
“It’s not just about building walls to keep out the water,” said Christine Morris, Norfolk’s chief resilience officer. “My job is to say whatever we’re going to do, are we thinking about it with respect to those three potential shocks we have? Are we making sure people have access to opportunity or are we isolating them?”
Norfolk’s three potential shocks are rising sea levels, over dependence on federal spending in a city that’s home to the world’s largest Navy base and a 19 percent poverty rate.
The other requirements to join 100 Resilient Cities are developing a “robust” resilience strategy, working with 96 business, academic and nonprofit partners to implement the strategy and networking with other members of the group, some as far away as Mandalay, Myanmar.
When a bridge collapsed on heavily congested Interstate 85 in Atlanta earlier this year, the city’s chief resilience officer asked 100 Resilient Cities to provide consultants to advise small business owners along I-85 how to protect themselves while the busy urban interstate was closed.
Rebuild by Design, now associated with the Rockefeller Foundation, was created in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help New York City and the state of New Jersey recover from the battering they took from Sandy. Rebuild by Design held a competition to design local recovery projects and awarded $930 million to six projects, four in New York and two in New Jersey.
“What we set out to accomplish was to ensure that disaster recovery funds weren’t just going to building back what was there but to build for the future,” Chester said.
The projects include the “Big U,” flood control structures and green water retention areas around Lower Manhattan, including flood gates that would lower into place from the underside of an elevated highway. A New Jersey project calls for a variety of flood control structures to protect the cities of Hoboken, Weehawken and Jersey City, which were flooded by a surging Hudson River during Sandy.
A second, even larger design competition was launched by HUD in 2014. Last year the agency awarded nearly $1 billion to 13 cities, counties and states that submitted the best resilience strategies. The winners included Louisiana’s plan to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe to a new home. Among the other winners were New York City, New Orleans, Norfolk and Minot, N.D.
New York received $176 million from HUD to help pay for flood control protection in Lower Manhattan. That project is incorporated into the OneNYC resilience strategy announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015. New York is planning to spend as much as $19.5 billion to achieve physical, social and economic resilience.
“OneNYC is ambitious, setting clear and aggressive goals,” de Blasio said when he announced the strategy. “Our initiatives address every aspect of life in New York City — how we live, work, learn, and play, raise our children, and enjoy all our city has to offer.”
When Sandy flooded basements in Lower Manhattan the water knocked out transformers providing electricity to numerous office buildings and apartment houses. Con Edison, the city’s power company, is boosting resilience by installing 158 waterproof transformers in Lower Manhattan buildings.
New Orleans has not put a price tag on its ambitious Resilient New Orleans Strategy, which addresses a full range of issues affecting the quality of life in the city. The plan declares the city must “adapt to thrive.”
HUD granted New Orleans $141 million to help create the city’s first Resilience District, a pilot water retention project in the Gentilly neighborhood north of the French Quarter. The project includes the Mirabeau Water Garden, a water retention area that will store 10 million gallons of rain water on the 25-acre site of an old convent.
Soils are subsiding in Gentilly, where swamps were drained to make way for development, exacerbating flooding problems there, said Jeff Hebert, New Orleans chief resilience officer. He said the strategy deals with economic resilience as well as training residents to construct the flood control improvements.
“We have a program that is training people to go into those jobs,” Hebert said. “We are connecting people who are unemployed or underemployed to the jobs that we’re creating through this work, also they’re the jobs of the future, they’re green and blue jobs.”
Morris said sea levels have been rising faster in Norfolk than any other place on the East Coast, creating periodic flooding on high tides.
The state of Virginia received $112 million from HUD to help pay for flood control projects in Norfolk. The Norfolk resilience strategy advocates economic resilience by incorporating the city’s poverty reduction plan.
“The idea is if you have to redesign the city anyway to deal with water, could you redesign it in ways that drive economic opportunity, so that really is the strategy,” Morris said. Plans to deal with economic and social issues must be viewed through a “resilience lens,” she said.
In recent years, Miami Beach has experienced flooding caused by rising sea levels. During the highest tides, sea water flooded business and residential areas around South Beach. Photos of cars plowing through axle deep water on Miami Beach streets were common.
Miami Beach has raised streets where the flooding was the worst up to two-and-one-half feet and installed new pumps to keep the water out of the streets, said Chief Resilience Officer Susanne Torriente.
“The last king tide all roads were dry,” she said. “We didn’t have to divert any traffic.”
Torriente said the city is paying for raising streets, new pumps, “living seawalls” made of vegetation and updating its zoning code with $400 million in storm-water fees paid by residents.
President Trump has declared climate change issues off limits for federal agencies under his control, meaning local governments can no longer count on federal funding for resilience projects.
Carter said it will be up to local governments to adopt creative financing solutions and change the way they spend existing funds. “People are recognizing that the dollars they’re spending year after year on transportation maintenance, on education, on health, actually are dollars they already have and can be directed to lead to more resilient outcomes,” he said.
Minot received $74 million from HUD to help pay for flood control projects and economic resilience. In recent years, the city has been stressed by flooding of the Souris River, which inundated 27 percent of Minot in 2011. Initially, people seeking jobs at the nearby Bakken Oil Fields moved into Minot, raising housing prices and creating a shortage of affordable housing. Many of those workers left when Bakken production declined, depressing the housing market.
Minot is buying several hundred houses located in the flood plain, leaving those properties vacant to help absorb flood water and moving the residents to new affordable housing on higher ground, said Robert Davis, Minot’s planning director and chief resilience officer.
“We think that it’s better to move the residents out of these areas and move them into new housing because we don’t have the money to build floodwalls or the levees yet and if we had another flood the same homes would be inundated again,” Davis said.
More and more communities are turning to resilience initiatives to protect their physical, social and economic future. They realize that planning for the worst is the best way to protect themselves.John Van Gieson is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Fla. He owns and runs Van Gieson Media Relations, Inc.